Dry January in February

In many countries there is Dry January. In Belgium there is “Tournée Minérale”, and it’s in February. Why not in January? Because we don’t want to miss out on all the New Year’s receptions of course… Anyway, I decided to give it a try. Some see this as a hype. But I’m just curious. I want to find out what the effects are, if any, of not drinking alcohol for a month. In the end, alcohol is a harmful substance for your body. So I’m curious if I will see any differences.

It will not be easy, though! If wine is your passion, then not drinking it for a month is quite a daunting perspective. Not to mention the occasions where having a beer or a glass of wine seems to be the most obvious thing, like at a party or when you’re meeting up with friends in a bar…

Another reason why some people don’t do this, is the risk that will you overcompensate when the month is over. I think that is indeed something to be mindful about. But I’ve found a solution for that! Instead of compensating in terms of quantities, I will just compensate by treating myself with a top bottle. That immediately gives me something to look forward to. And since I won’t have spent any money on wine for a whole month, I might as well spend it on a special bottle in March then.

In the meantime, I resorted to this :

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I can’t remember the last time I tasted alcohol-free beer. So I was actually curious to try this! And it’s not that bad actually… The end is a bit sweet, but for the rest, it’s so much like normal beer that it actually feels like I’m cheating already on day one… So hey, maybe this will not be that bad after all. It’ll be fun! Yay!

Never waste a good climate change : Part II – Polska!

Polish wine, would you believe it?! Poles consider beer to be lemonade. Something you drink to refresh your mouth in between the shots of vodka. I reckoned they considered wine to be something similar. It actually turns out they produce it! In one of the airport shops in Warsaw they even have a full rack of Polish wine. And of course, I had to try it… I will not deny that I bought the bottles wondering if I really wanted to throw away my money just like that?! But actually, this turned out to be an interesting experience! Here they are : Continue reading “Never waste a good climate change : Part II – Polska!”

Never waste a good climate change – Burgundy

One man’s loss is another man’s gain. Climate change is a challenge in many wine regions, but creating opportunities in others. Take Burgundy, for example. 2015 was hailed as a great year by many critics. Very good weather conditions resulting in high quality grapes and wine. At least if you like very rich pinots with loads of ripe fruit. Many of the 2015s I tasted at the wine fair of independent vignerons recently in Lille, France, were very generous, ripe and had moderate acidity levels. Of course, this is my personal preference, but I look more for Burgundies with freshness, fresh fruit, good acidity, tension and elegance. The contrast was immense when I tasted the wines of Domaine Jacob at the same wine fair. They do not put the wines in barrels for very long and were therefore capable of already bringing the 2016s to the fair. Well, they were vibrant! And that’s how I like them. To be totally honest, you don’t find the cream of the Burgundy crop at this wine fair so it would be unfair to judge the quality of the vintage just on the Burgundies I’ve tasted there. But still, it gave me a general idea. And it strengthened my belief that the great vintages according to the wine press, do not always produce the wines that I like.

All of this made me wonder about the effects of the hot weather on the wines coming from the plateau of the much cooler Hautes-Côtes in Burgundy. These vineyards are located on top of the Côte d’Or escarpment, the east-facing hills where you find all the illustrious vineyards of the Côtes de Nuits and the Côtes de Beaune. The Hautes-Côtes are higher than the Côtes, as the name suggests, and are not protected from the winds coming from the west. The difference in temperature can be a whopping 5°C… No wonder it’s difficult to have ripe grapes here. Except perhaps in warmer vintages such as 2015? Curiosity got the better of me, and I bought the Hautes-Côtes de Beane “Les Perrières” from Denis Carré, a winemaker based in Meloisey, a village in the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune. I had tried this wine before but from a cooler vintage (2013) and it failed to convince me then, so I was eager to see what the 2015 had to offer :

The nose offers plenty of typical pinot fruit. “Ça pinote”, like the French say. Cherries are singing the tune, with raspberries doing the backing vocals. There is something in the nose that I would like to call “wild”, perhaps a touch of brett even? But it’s not of the sort that overwhelms. It actually adds an intriguing element to the nose. There’s also some herbs on the background, and a whiff of old barrel. The wine kicks off with the cherries and the raspberries but there’s good acidity here that creates a ripe-sour contrast that I like. It lacks a bit of depth and length, but it definitely gives typical pinot drinking pleasure.

 Not too bad for 14,95€, is it? The hierarchy is obviously respected : no great complexity here. But then again, this is a pleasant wine that pinot lovers will like for its typicity and its pretensionless every day drinking character.

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Conclusion : it’s early days to start putting all your money on the Hautes-Côtes in Burgundy, but if temperatures keep rising, the Hautes-Côtes may have good stuff for us in store. New rendez-vous in 20 years or so…

Transparency in wine

Today’s blog post is not about the color of wine but about more information on what is in your bottle (yes, it’s wine, I know) and how it’s made. This is a subject that’s been on my mind already for a while. But I got triggered by an article on Social Vignerons by Kelly Shepherd. She justly makes the point that wine labels are lacking important information for the consumer, such as the degree of sweetness of the wine and nutrition facts. I totally agree that there could be more information on a wine label so here’s a couple more suggestions of what wine makers could communicate about.

Let’s start with SO2 (sulphur dioxide), yes, the stuff of which you’ve been told it gives you headache. I’m not going to repeat the debate here about whether or not SO2 in wine gives you headache. Personally, I think alcohol is a logical first suspect if you want to find a culprit for your headache, but anyway, SO2 is not a substance that you should consume masses of either. So, wouldn’t it be logical if labels mentioned the amount of SO2 in a bottle? “Contains sulphites” is a mention that doesn’t help us much, because that just means that there is more than 10mg/l in your wine, which is almost always the case. And you need to be a real geek to know that the maximum level of SO2 in red wine, for example, is 150mg/l in Europe (350mg/ in the US!). And besides, knowing the maximum level doesn’t mean there is actually that much in your wine. So all we know is that there is between 10 and 150mg/l in a bottle of wine. Having more precise information is not only interesting for health conscious consumers. People with asthma can actually suffer an attack from too high levels of sulphites. Scientists still don’t understand the exact mechanisms of what exactly triggers such an attack and if SO2 in wine can directly cause one. But if I had asthma, I would like to know how much SO2 is in my wine, so I could at least be careful. By the way, organic wine does have lower SO2 levels, but there is still a margin between 0 and 100mg/l (for red wine).

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Contains Sulphites – sure, but how much?

Sweetness : like Kelly Shepherd argued, it’s difficult to know how sweet a wine is. Actually, it’s sometimes difficult to know if a wine is sweet at all.  It wouldn’t be the first time that someone gave me a bottle of sweet white wine as a present, thinking it was dry… Take the case of a white Bordeaux Supérieur. In almost all parts of the world the word “supérieur” refers to higher alcohol levels or perhaps longer ageing. In the case of a Bordeaux Supérieur, it means that the wine is sweet… In Jurançon (South-West France) it’s even more complicated : if the label doesn’t explicitly mention that it is dry, then it is sweet… If that’s not confusing?

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If the label doesn’t mention it’s dry, then it’s sweet!

Even for wines that are technically “dry”, it can still be interesting to have an indication of how dry. The sensory threshold of sugar in wine depends a bit on your sensitivity, but in general it’s around 3g/l that you can start to have an impression of roundness in the wine. Not unimportant when you’re drinking red wine from Valpolicella, Italy, for example. Sugar levels of around 5-6g/l are no exceptions there. And believe me, you will taste the difference. For many people 6g/l in red is already too high. They might perhaps not be able to tell you why they don’t like the wine, but if they say that the wine is too round or too jammy. It’s the sugar!

In regions where they make a lot of sweet wine, such as Alsace in France or the Mosel in Germany, it can be notoriously difficult to find out whether your wine will be sweet, medium sweet or dry. Especially in Germany where categories such as “Kabinett” don’t tell you much unless you know your way around German wine. In the Alsace region several producers started using  a scale of sweetness on the label, indicating where the wine is situated on that scale. Domaine Kientzler does a good job here adding the “indice de sucrosité“.

Champagne is another such example of where dry and dry can be two different things. In principle when the bottle mentions “Brut”, it should be dry. But the maximum sugar level for “Brut” being at 12g/l, you can be sure that you will taste the difference between a Champagne that’s at 6g and one that is at 12g… Again, no way of knowing when you’re buying a bottle unless it’s explicitly mentioned on the label.

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An example of good practice by Dhondt-Grellet in Champagne

And while we’re in Champagne, let’s also talk about dégorgement, or the disgorgement. That is the process of taking the lees (dead yeast cells) out of the bottle before the liqueur de tirage is added, to bring the champagne to the desired level of sweetness, and the final cork is put on. As long as the disgorgement did not happen, the wine will continue to evolve. The effect of the time spent on the lees is more complexity and aromas of toasted bread, yeast, patisserie, brioche, those beautiful aromas that are so typical for champagne. In principle, once the champagne is bottled, the wine will not evolve anymore. Some argue that top champagnes still need a couple of years cellaring before you drink it, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. So what does this mean? That you better drink your champagne (or any sparkling wine for that matter) as soon as possible after the disgorgement, especially if you cannot store it in good conditions (dark and cool). The question of course is : how do you know when the champagne was bottled?! Some mention the date of disgorgement on the label, but the vast majority doesn’t. So if you see a bottle of champagne in your local supermarket, there’s really no way of knowing for how long it’s been standing there in the daylight, at room temperature. In the worst case your champagne will taste of brown apples, which means it’s oxidized. Quite unfortunate if you spent 30€ for a bottle, isn’t it?

I could go on about things that are useful and interesting information for us but that are lacking on the label or the technical sheet, but I’ll stop here. My point is that more transparency in wine and how it’s made would be a good thing for the consumer. I’m aware, though, of potential pitfalls : wine makers’ core business is making wine, not communication. Especially small producers will probably shrug their shoulders when you ask them about more information on the label. And then there is also the question of technicality : how to make sure that the information they provide is also understood by the consumer. Valuable points, for sure. But I think that such things evolve. Once everyone expects certain things to be on the label or a technical sheet, then more and more wine makers will start providing that information. And the more information is provided, the more consumers will become aware of the significance of it and why they might want to know all that stuff. If you now see the caloric value of a biscuit on its label, chances are high that you will be able to judge if that is a lot or not in comparison with other food. And then, it’s up to you if you want to eat it or not. Because you can make an informed decision. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could do the same with a bottle of wine?

Goodbye champagne… Hello champagne!

You can never have enough champagne in the house. Seriously! I’m hooked. I’ve come a far way, though. Before I was really into wine, I used to say : “why would you buy an expensive bottle of champagne if you can have cava for 5€? What’s the difference?!” Well, that was a long time ago… With the discovery of a whole new world of wine during my sommelier training, I also came to appreciate champagne. The aromas of apple, chalk, butter, toasted bread, brioche are now aromas that I cherish every time I drink a good champagne.  Continue reading “Goodbye champagne… Hello champagne!”

If it’s Sicilian, it’s gotta be fishy!

Have I told you already I like Italian food? If I haven’t, punch me. I love Italian food! Whenever I have a proper Italian dish, I can’t help wondering how something fairly simple can taste so wonderful. Not that all Italian dishes are easy to make, but many classics are. And when they’re done well, they make me drool.

From time to time I have a go at making a few of these dishes at home. A recipe that gave me great satisfaction is the ragù bolognese of TV chef Antonio Carluccio. This recipe gives me the feeling I’m eating something authentically Italian. Many people in Belgium chuck in a lot more in the sauce, and I used to do so as well. And that’s ok. Everyone has his or her own way of making spaghetti sauce and many of these versions are also really yummy. But try Carluccio’s recipe for once. It’s pretty good stuff and actually not so difficult to make!

But the ragù bolognese is not the dish I want to talk about in today’s 1+1=3. I want to talk about a Sicilian dish : the pasta con le sarde, or pasta with fresh sardines. Continue reading “If it’s Sicilian, it’s gotta be fishy!”

Boutenac : balance in the Languedoc

The Languedoc was known for a long time as the wine lake of France. The region was the main source of very simple wine, often Vin de France. Luckily, things have changed considerably. Winemakers have become aware of the fact that quality is important if they want to gain respect and sell their wines at a higher price. The evolution in the Languedoc to a tiered system with the AOC Languedoc as the basis, with communal AOCs in the middle and Crus at the top of the pyramid, is one of the things that shows how the region is focusing more and more on quality. Things are changing at a fast pace : Terrasses du Larzac was promoted to cru status in 2014, so was La Clape in 2015, and Pic St Loup was the latest to join in 2017. Earlier sub-regions to have become Languedoc crus were Roquebrun and Berlou (Saint-Chinian), La Livinière (Minervois) and Boutenac (Corbières).

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Continue reading “Boutenac : balance in the Languedoc”